Tak Shindo
Brass And Bamboo






Wow! Fancy meeting you on that cover, Uma Thurman. Oh wait, it‘s Takeshi "Tak" Shindo‘s 1959 classic Brass And Bamboo that‘s playing a trick on me and everyone else who has discovered the Exotica genre a few decades after its first creative burst – and indeed, the left yellow side of the cover looks remarkably similar to the movie poster of Quentin Tarantino‘s Kill Bill Vol. 1. After the epic success of his field recording-focused faux-African album Mganga! in 1958, Shindo (1922–2002) does something curiously pioneering with this follow-up which is his first entry for Columbia Records: he plays it real!


While he was a real American who was born in Sacramento, California, his Japanese origin was a boon in terms of his status as an expert for Far Eastern instrumentations and orchestra-related settings. This knowledge was basically unused in the creative process of Mganga!, but sparkles all the more on Brass And Bamboo. Rarely has an original Exotica front artwork depicted the twofold contradiction of a record this obviously, apart from the common re-issue strategy of coupling two albums on one CD, but this is another topic. On the left, we have the U.S. American emancipating 60‘s ideal of beauty, while the right side features a similarly self-assured, if slightly subservient geisha in a lush (asphalted!) bamboo forest.


On all of the 12 tracks – 10 renditions plus 2 unique tracks written by Shindo himself, though I can only link the title track Brass And Bamboo to Shindo – does the intermingling of U.S. centric brass-laden flavors with Far Eastern scents occur, and the soothing female voices and traditional instruments like the koto and a whole set of Kabuki drums are as exotic as the trumpet and trombone sections are opalescent. Another über-exotic addition is the Japanese samisen, a three-stringed banjo that was only featured in big Hollywood productions at the time, but never before on an Exotica record, let alone in a skillful way; Caravan is the best example, and the samisen makes this version a towering example that stands the test of time and fends off hundreds of other renditions of this Jazz classic.


The blend Shindo offered was therefore truly unique, and the album remains an Exotica benchmark to this day, although it has its weak spots in comparison to Mganga!, for example the lack of field recordings, which, by the way, would have been easier to record and integrate than the rolling thunders and wild animals on Shindo‘s first album – chirping birds are easily found everywhere. In addition, Mganga! features primarily unique setups and compositions, whereas his other albums rely more on classics. Despite these minor quibbles, Brass And Bamboo is worth your while, as I will show below.


The starting point is Caravan and it already depicts the whole concept in a nutshell: tremoling Far Eastern flutes, similarly played staccato drums and brass counterpoints are the predominant ingredients of each mélange. Vivid koto strings are interwoven, and the gleaming brass sections alternate with the respective Far Eastern instruments. Both anticlimaxes, brass and flute sections, are either played gently or full of verve, creating diversified play styles. Poinciana follows, and the mysterious mood at the beginning is realized with xylophones, a koto and a beautiful flute melody with reduced brass backings that only come to full life later in the song. A dark blurry Chinese gong marks the end of this version. While there are second-long sections in this song that sound completely brassy or Japanese, a coalescence of the varied style is always at hand. The koto is especially variegating. A fantastic revision of an old classic.


The Moon Was Yellow, best known for its Nelson Riddle arrangement with vocals by Frank Sinatra, starts in that cheeky fashion with polyphonous marimba backings, dark trombones and an accompanying koto. Shortly after everything breaks loose and the brass sections take over, while the main melody is played on the koto for a short time. Added vibraphone parts create a temporary jazzy atmosphere in this swinging classic. Skylark is worth a mention as well, for it presents a soothing female choir in the limelight, while various short intersections of kotos, brass, vibraphones and marimbas are subordinate to the doo-dooing of the choir. It is only in the second half that a short brass intermission can be heard, but apart from this incident, the song is absolutely mellow and a huge favorite of mine!


No Place To Go is a slow mercurial film noir song with melancholic trumpet melodies and complemental mesmerizing flute, vibraphone and koto parts that are much more soothing. The mood shifts into a more positive outlook, and the outro unites all instruments for an euphonious closure. The following version of Bali Ha‘i is a killer and totally warped, but in a hypnotic way: an eerie female choir sings the main melody while tense brass backings and soporific vibraphone parts play along. Their spectral appearance is maintained throughout the song, making this the most balanced offering and the only example where Shindo lets the mood flow with an harmonious juxtaposition of equality – the brass parts are as important and laid back as the Far Eastern parts, making this the strongest song of the album.


The very first few seconds of the already briefly mentioned The Song Of Delilah open side B, and it is the first song where the flute is played in a distinctly Oriental style and the samisen is briefly included, its piercing strings inheriting a resplendent peace and forming a great counterpart to the glitzy impetus of the brass players. As usual, The Song Of Delilah oscillates between quiescent parts of tranquility and effervescent swing sections. Flamingo brings back the haunting female choir a third time with tocking claves, kotos and warbled flutes as accompanying instruments. The mandatory brass sections are particularly exhilarant, fighting off not only the Far Eastern mood, but also the introverted conviviality of the choir. For what it‘s worth, the experiment is successful.


The following I‘m Beginning To See The Light, originally written by Duke Ellington, Johnny Hodges and Harry James is the most cheeky and hilarious tune on Brass And Bamboo. It is mainly brass-driven, while the tick-tock rhythm and the koto melody are gleeful subordinates. The occasional use of the Chinese gong is all the more funny. Here we have the case that the Far Eastern instruments won‘t fit in the setting, but due to the good mood that this song induces, you can register this song under the fun label. The Lamp Is Low is next and continues the brass heaviness, while the koto parts are only occasionally perceptible in their full strength. While there‘s nothing wrong with the setting, this song can be interpreted as an indicator for Tak Shindo‘s future – his following album Accent On Bamboo was also more keen on the brass sections than the Japanese instruments.


Up next is Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing, and Shindo‘s version is quite schmaltzy with a much more melodramatic choir. This version is quite a disappointment, especially after the first 10 seconds with its gorgeous wind chimes and an utterly beautiful flute melody that transports quiescence and harmony. The song ends in a similar fashion as it began, but the in-betweens aren‘t my cup of tea – i very much prefer the instrumental version by the Gene Rains Group. The final piece is called Brass And Bamboo and is a Shindo original specifically written for this album. The brass sections are very colorful and richly texturized, and they are in constant interplay with the samisen. The marimbas play typical Japanese tone sequences, but again, I get the feeling that the trumpets swallow every Far Eastern bit they can find. This is still a great song and a formidable ending of another successful experiment by Tak Shindo.


Make no mistake: Brass And Bamboo is a gorgeous prime example of an Exotica record that is tremendously vivid and creative despite featuring 10-11 renditions of already well-known classics. The inclusion of the samisen, bamboo flutes and various Japanese drums is so unusual and prolific that Shindo‘s resulting versions are among the best in the ocean of similar performances by other big names. Do we really need yet another version of Poinciana, Bali Ha‘i and Caravan? We don‘t anymore after listening to Tak Shindo‘s interpretations. Well okay, we do nonetheless. But Shindo‘s versions successfully merge the well-known coruscating brass sections with Far Eastern tidbits and important intersections that aren‘t just gimmicky fragments, but integral counterparts and equipollent accompaniments to the prevalent brass instruments.


The pristine purity of Brass And Bamboo is all the more important in comparison to the 1960 follow-up Accent On Bamboo that is much more focused on big-band numbers and arrangements than on the promised Far Eastern flavors. I prefer Brass And Bamboo over Accent On Bamboo anytime, and I am of the opinion that it is even better than the darker savage-like drum songs of Mganga!, although the album is close to my heart as well, and admittedly even more creative and impressive due to its overawing setting. To be more objective: Shindo‘s blend of the Far East with the present-day West is rather curious, but that‘s what Exotica listeners are searching for. It was a unique selling point at the time, and the release remains peerless to this day. Unfortunately, Brass And Bamboo is not yet available on digital music stores, and since Capitol Records' archive is as varied and huge as the universe, it will take them lightyears to come up with a re-issue, right? Let's hope not, for this gemstone deserves a proper release and lots of attention.


Exotica Review 053: Tak Shindo – Brass And Bamboo (1959). Originally published on Mar. 31, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.